Sri Lanka’s Tourism Minister wants to turn Mannar Island into a new Macau
by Melani Manel Perera

For Diana Gamage, the island can attract foreign gamblers. However, the local economy is based on fishing and agriculture, and it would be hard to introduce another development model.


Colombo (AsiaNews) – Turning Mannar Island into a casino resort like Macau, well known as a gambling destination, could attract tourists and bring revenues to the country, this according to Sri Lankan Tourism Minister Diana Gamage, who also backs the legalisation of cannabis, over which she clashed with the opposition.

The idea of turning the island into a gambling mecca is controversial. Macau is the only city in China where gambling is legal (online betting is banned with repercussions for the entire region).

Since 2014, Macau Special Administrative Region has topped Las Vegas in terms of revenues at least seven times, with 60 per cent of its GDP depending on gambling, while other sectors of the economy are marginal.

It would be difficult, however, to transplant this model in Sri Lanka. Mannar has an ancient port and 16 landing points along its coasts. Fishing and dry-fish production are the mainstay of its economy.

About 36.7 per cent of the local labour force works in fisheries, and almost 40 per cent is employed in agriculture. Sri Lankan parents often threaten their children to send them to work on farms on the island as punishment.

In 2016 the island’s fish catch was 10,300 metric tonnes and dry-fish production exceeded 1,800 tonnes.

A development plan for the island already exists, approved by the Urban Development Authority for the period 2016-2030, with the areas that need immediate attention already identified.

To attract wealthy Indian tourists, when he was prime minister, Sri Lankan President Wickramasinghe promoted the construction of a link between the island’s main pier to Dhanushkodi and Palai, which in turn would be connected to Chennai via direct flights.

According to journalist and political analyst Kusal Perera, Gamage's proposal is typical of the minister.

However, developing Mannar as a gambling hub would not only change the island’s economic vocation, but risks bringing businesses that typically revolve around casinos, on the margin of the law, like the sex trade.

In fact, human traffickers are heavily involved in Macau with illegal brothels, nightclubs, and massage parlours.